Filmgoer’s Flamethrower #7 – 12 Strong

Posted: February 17, 2018 in Uncategorized

© 2018 G.N. Jacobs

Some war movies have helped define filmmaking for generations to come. Other war movies miss the presumed good version of the why and divide the audience into the “it’s a movie and war is part of our shared experience” and “how dare you produce such obvious pro-Government militaristic toxic masculinity propaganda” camps. The recent movie 12 Strong is no Hurt Locker in that choosing to depict a generally successful true-ish to life operation there are going to be fewer highly emotional War is Bad scenes “approved” for viewing for the latter camp.

When the soldiers win a quick three-week campaign as Special Forces advisors to the Afghan Northern Alliance starting in the two weeks after 9/11 there aren’t going to be very many scenes of fear, hurt and aftermath that can either make for great filmmaking or drag a war movie down in being unwatchable in its darkness. What came out on screen in this story of twelve Green Berets going to war to strike back for 9/11 lands squarely in the middle between giving both sides of the argument plenty of fuel for the next year or so.

While it says, “Based on the Book Horse Soldiers by Doug Stanton” on the credits and promotion materials, all the names except for Afghan General Abdul Rashid Dostum have been changed for the movie. This is what gives the How Dare You camp much of its ammo. The movie as presented on screen takes liberties that might have observers of how Special Forces foreign internal defense missions (advisors) actually operate spitting up their coffee.

For starters, there were more Americans on the ground in the real campaign to take a key city in northern Afghanistan from where the Taliban held sway. The Air Force really doesn’t like taking bombing adjustment orders from non-Air Force personnel and trains Combat Controllers to operate with ground forces no matter the level of training of the ground unit. And the CIA sent a few Paramilitary Officers. But, it’s a simpler and presumed better story if just twelve guys go to slay the Taliban/al-Qaeda dragon.

One problem with the fictionalization that landed on screen is that Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) is really the only American character that gets enough airtime in order to reach the viewer in his/her seat. He kisses the wife goodbye as he asks for a transfer back to his old unit now that there is a real war on. He highlights the difficulty inherent in advisor missions that live and die on making nice with the local commander, General Dostum (Navid Negahban) in this case. The two men finally agree on the ultimately successful course of action to take Masar-i-Sharif sooner than planners expected.

And most of the other Americans on the team despite being played by a small handful of recognizable actors like Michael Peña are cardboard cutouts. They board the helicopter entering Afghanistan singing Barry Sadler’s Green Beret Theme, a product of the one movie ever to make the case that Vietnam is Good…John Wayne’s The Green Berets.

But, the filmgoer doesn’t get the sense if these moments were intended by the filmmaker as ironic or not, that these professional warriors make fun of what the public assumes about their job based on past movies in our shared database. Or do we see the camaraderie of highly trained true believers going into battle sure of the rightness of the cause? This is where the filmmaker has to let the audience know his/her personal philosophy concerning these things and I feel in this case someone ducked a question that needed answering.

My ambivalence is also rooted in my earlier statement that successful operations that fit into Napoleon’s quote about short and victorious wars simply may not be as dramatic. When we think about the really great war movies derived from past wars whether invented from whole cloth or somewhat truthful to events, these stories have moments that stick with us that spring from dramatic reversal. We remember Chef’s head dropped into Willard’s lap while held prisoner in a tiger cage, a moment that just screams All is Lost from Save the Cat.

We have the relationship between team leader and local general that could have consequences if things go south. We also have what starts out as a slipped disk in the back of the team’s second in command that later is made worse when the same character takes a bullet. The rest of the movie describes the kind of dramatic arc where the bad things that do happen are too minor to be very interesting to the drama addicts that make up the American movie going public. The real mission described was only three weeks and everybody made it home.

But, on the positive side for people like myself who can appreciate war movies at many levels, including that things move and blow up, 12 Strong delivers a fast ride through the desert trying to capture an important enemy city.

Now how do I feel about this movie beyond being a middling war movie that moves and blows shit up? As you may guess from me trying to keep my opinions relevant to the actual movie seen on the screen, I see both sides. I see war movies and war itself as part of the condition of our species and don’t mind so much about the rah-rah war movie as escapism. However, the war movie that understands the cost of that glory is a whole lot of pain more likely to play out two years after the soldier rotates home to get on with life is inherently more dramatic. This is because the events likely to inform a soldier’s PTSD seem to be the best moments to stick into the dramatic reversal slots as instructed by certain structure heavy writing manuals. Somewhere out there is the movie that does both…

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